Editors' pick

P.Nokio

Children's Theater
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P.Nokio photo
Blake Echols/Imagination Stage
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Editorial Review

Review: 'Ikarus' and 'P.Nokio'
By Celia Wren
Friday, Feb. 10, 2012

If you gave "The Phantom Tollbooth" some footlights and a contract with Def Jam Recordings (with a G-rating requirement), you might end up with entertainment as inspired and quirky as "P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical." Sure, the latest Imagination Stage world premiere riffs on the so-well-known-it's-been-Disneyfied story of Pinocchio, the temptation-prone puppet with the telltale growing nose. But playwright Psalmayene 24 doesn't settle for a bland rehash: He imbues his story with so many cheekily precocious allusions and such a modern pulse that his characters might as well be break dancing their way to "Tollbooth's" Dictionopolis.

And, as is the case with Norton Juster's classic, there's a wholesome moral in "P.Nokio," which is one of two new children's shows at local venues about kids learning integrity. Over at the Kennedy Center, the dance-theater piece "The Wings of Ikarus Jackson" features a hero who struggles to accept his own feathery defining trait. Meanwhile, P.Nokio grows to understand the value of school, truth-telling and family bonds.

As he demonstrated with "Zomo the Rabbit," which Imagination Stage premiered in 2009, Psalmayene 24 has a flair for folding fairy-tale wonder into an infectious hip-hop vibe. As the director of "P.Nokio," as well as its writer and star, he repeats the trick, teleporting us to the realm of Hip-Hopia, where people pay bills in street credits and boomboxes can be the size of city blocks.

One of Hip-Hopia's residents is G.Petto (James J. Johnson), a computer game designer who creates a screen-transcending animated child named P.Nokio. Sent off to attend the Old School, P.Nokio willfully wanders past a Fork in the road (a silver-clad Katy Carkuff plays the texting-obsessed Fork) into the Forest of Fraudulent Fun, where he is bamboozled by con artists Fox Madoff (Jacob Yeh) and Cat Burgler (Carkuff). (The fox's surname is just one of the tongue-in-cheek allusions that the show's dialogue and witty rap numbers let fly. Keep an ear out for references to "Singin' in the Rain," Rihanna's hit song "Umbrella," the letter-fromNigeria phishing scam and more.) Further naughtiness in Gullible Lane saddles P.Nokio with donkey ears, but all ends happily, thanks to the intervention of the rapping, spray-painting Graffiti Fairy (Paige Hernandez) and, more important, P.Nokio's real love for G. Petto.

These adventures unspool on a set, designed by Ethan Sinnott, that's an arrangement of blue graffiti and doorways topped with video screens that relay images of P.Nokio's lengthening nose. The zippy visuals complement the energy of the performances, including Psalmayene 24's turn as the innocently enthusiastic P.Nokio, and Hernandez's hilariously deadpan portrait of the Fairy. (Hernandez also choreographed the hip-hop-flavored dance numbers, set to catchy music by Nick Hernandez.)

Johnson's G.Petto is sweetly nerdy, and Yeh, who appears in several roles, is particularly diverting as the Machine Master, a sneering computer-game magnate who swans around in gold chains and a mink coat - Kendra Rai designed the droll costumes - ordering employees such as G.Petto to turn out games that are safely derivative. "The trick is to duplicate whatever sold well before!" he snaps.

Set beside "P.Nokio's" wit and exuberance, "The Wings of Ikarus Jackson" feels light, slow and underwritten. Admittedly, director and choreographer Devanand Janki and playwright Jerome Hairston are aiming for a more poetic and nuanced tone with their collaboration, an adaptation of Christopher Myers's book "Wings." The production does offer some narrative: the tale of a budding friendship between a lonely, young girl named Cris (Lynette Rathnam) and Ikarus (Andreu Honeycutt), who's so embarrassed by the feathered pinions sprouting from his back that he hides them inside a backpack.

But the show is also an evocation of urban life, spotlighting the contrasting physicality of city-dwellers - a high-stepping power walker (S. Lewis Feemster), a hopscotch-playing girl (a dynamic Felicia Curry), a crotchety, stooped old lady (Neville Braithwaite) and others - in an orange-toned cubist metropolis (Meghan Raham designed the set and costumes). The storytelling sometimes drags, but there's piquancy in the movement, which includes a fight waged through hip-hop dance, a taxi ride chronicled with swaying bodies and a dream sequence in which schoolchildren move in seemingly weightless slow-mo after their teacher (Mark Hairston) lectures on gravity. (The play's art-rock-inflected score was composed by R. MacKenzie Lewis.) A little of this kinetic lyricism goes a long way, but with a 45-minute running time and an unobjectionable message about kindness and diversity, "The Wings of Ikarus Jackson" can hardly test anyone's patience too sorely.

Preview: Classic story set to beatbox
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jan. 27, 2012

The word adaptation doesn't really describe the fresh take on "Pinocchio" headed to Imagination Stage. So let's call it a remix. That seems a prime descriptor for a production that begins: "If you're ready for the show called 'P.Nokio,' somebody say, 'Oh, yeah!'"

The basics of the cautionary tale remain intact, but this beatbox-infused rendition takes place in Hip-Hopia, a land where a graffiti fairy makes dreams come true, kids receive their education at the old school and street credits are currency. The title character, born as a computer animation rather than a wooden puppet, is played by writer-director Psalmayene 24 (a.k.a. Gregory Morrison), the dynamo behind Imagination's 2009 hit "Zomo the Rabbit," which Washington Post critic Celia Wren called "ingenious, colorful and (from an adult perspective) delectably tongue-in-cheek."

Oddly enough, the playwright, who goes by Psalm, credits his upbringing in Brooklyn - when breakdancing and rapping at the lunchroom table were beginning to take off - with giving him the tools to put his own spin on a story.

"Hip-hop is all about taking what's old and making it new, and then creating new things that have a classic feeling, too," he says. "So the style of adaptation really is in the spirit of hip-hop, sort of like sampling an old play."

And, according to the actor behind the growing nose, "Pinocchio" particularly lends itself to this remixed rendition.

"It's the colorful characters and the fact that P.Nokio is prone to telling stories and making up lies," Psalm says. "And that is really at the heart of rapping, this idea of making up stories that are sometimes fact, sometimes fiction."

The playwright is returning to Imagination Stage armed not just with his signature hip-hop aesthetic, but also with much of his "Zomo" crew, including the creative duo of DJ Nick "tha 1da" Hernandez, who supplies the soundtrack, and his sister, choreographer Paige Hernandez, who also plays the aforementioned fairy. The siblings grew up in a household filled with hip-hop music, and Paige Hernandez has crafted a career of using the bouncy beats and fluid movements to connect with younger audiences.

"It's a great medium to be able to relate to students," says Hernandez, who teaches theater through Arena Stage. "They love the rhyming and the rhythm, and the dance is great for motor skills."

The pair supply the moves and sounds that create the fairy tale's buoyant energy, including a chase scene that uses such dance styles as Brazilian capoeira, street dance, old school moves and house. Nick, for his part, has taken P.Nokio's animated inception as the perfect excuse to integrate digitized ditties reminiscent of early Nintendo game music.

The trio is hoping to recapture some of the magic of their earlier Imagination venture, which affirmed Psalm's belief that hip-hop is more than child's play - it's a medium for the masses.

"I was so pleased that so many people of different cultures and different ages actually appreciated it," Psalm says of "Zomo."

People in their "70s and 80s, like grandparents, were enjoying it just as much as the kids."

That feedback made Psalm realize he was onto something - productions powered by call-and-response, heavy beats and rhyming dialogue.

"I think it's still in its earliest phases in terms of the aesthetic," he says of hip-hop theater. "I think it's like a rose that's just beginning to bud right now. That's how I look at it."

Additional events: Hip-hop classes take place at 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays Feb. 4, 25, March 3 and 10. Tickets are $8. A dance party follows the 7 p.m. performance on March 9. Entry is free for ticket holders.